In a far-reaching report on child sex abuse in Australia, a government commission is recommending that the country's Catholic Church lift its celibacy requirement for diocesan clergy and be required to report evidence of abuse revealed in confession.
Those are among the 400 recommendations contained in the 17-volume final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, which is wrapping up a five-year investigation – the longest in Australia's history.
"We have concluded that there were catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades," the report said.
The Australian reports: "More than 15,000 people contacted the commission to share their experiences of abuse, more than 8,000 of them spoke personally with the commissioner about the trauma it caused, and approximately 2,500 cases have now been referred to police."
The commission said the church failed to properly address allegations and concerns of victims, calling the Church's response to them "remarkably and disturbingly similar."
The report also detailed abuse in churches of other denominations and at such institutions as schools and sports clubs. However, it concluded that the greatest number of alleged abuse perpetrators were found in Catholic institutions. The commission has concluded that 7 percent of priests who worked in Australia between 1950 and 2009 had been accused of child sex abuse.
Among the report's recommendations:
-- A national strategy to prevent child abuse, with a national office of child safety.
-- Making failure to protect a child from risk of abuse within an institution a criminal offense on the state and territory level.
-- Implementing preventative training for children in schools and early childhood center.
-- A requirement that candidates for religious ministry undergo external psychological testing.
-- Any person in a religious ministry subject to a substantiated child sex abuse complaint should be permanently removed from the ministry.
Currently, Australian law exempts confessional evidence from the rules that apply to other kinds of evidence in court, according to The National Catholic Register.
"We recommend that canon law be amended so that the 'pontifical secret' does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse," the report said.
It said that "Religious ministers, out-of-home care workers, childcare workers, registered psychologists and school [counselors] should be brought into line with police, doctors and nurses who are all obliged by law to report sexual abuse," according to The Sydney Morning Herald reports.
"Without a legal obligation to tell police about abuses, many staff and volunteers failed to let anyone outside the institution know, the commission found," the Herald reported.
The commission called for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to ask the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for clergy. The commission found that clerical celibacy was not a direct cause of abuse, but that it increased the risk of abuse when celibate male clergy had privileged access to children.
In an official statement, Archbishop Denis Hart of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, apologized for past abuse, calling it a "shameful past" and said the commission's report "will be taken very seriously."
However, speaking to reporters later, Hart said the commission's report "hasn't damaged the credibility of the church" and called the recommendations on the confessional "a distraction."
"The seal of the confessional, or the relationship with God that's carried through the priest and with the person, is inviolable. It can't be broken," Hart told reporters.
"I think everyone understands that this Catholic and orthodox practice of confession is always confidential," he said.
Hart also pushed back on the subject of celibacy: "We know very well that institutions who have celibate clergy and institutions that don't have celibate clergy both face these problems. We know very well that this happens in families that are certainly not observing celibacy."
The commission's findings follow numerous allegations of sex abuse by Catholic priests in Australia in recent years. In June, Police in Victoria charged Cardinal George Pell, now a high-ranking Vatican official, with sex abuse dating to his time as a priest in Australia in the 1970s and 80s. Pell has denied the allegations.
The report concluded: "Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number." the report concluded.
"It is not a case of a few 'rotten apples.' Society's major institutions have seriously failed," it said.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A commission on child sex abuse in Australia has completed a landmark, five-year investigation of the problem there. As NPR's Scott Neuman reports, the panel's final report offers sweeping recommendations for the country's Catholic clergy.
SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: The Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse interviewed thousands of victims over the years and produced a 17-volume report that included hundreds of recommendations. In this audio from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull praised the commission for what he called its often harrowing work.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL: What that commission has done has been - exposed a national tragedy. It's an outstanding exercise in love. And I thank the commissioners and those who had the courage to tell their stories.
NEUMAN: The commission looked at abuse in schools and sports clubs, as well as churches, but it found the biggest problem in Catholic institutions. And it had some far-reaching recommendations - calling on the Australian Catholic Church to ask the Vatican to lift the celibacy requirement for priests, saying there was evidence of increased risk of abuse when celibate male clergy had privileged access to children. It also recommended requiring that any evidence of abuse revealed in the sanctity of the confessional be reported to outside authorities. President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Denis Hart, says he'll pass on the recommendations to the Vatican, but he also pushed back on the issue of violating confidentiality.
DENIS HART: The seal of the confessional or the relationship with God that's carried through the priest and with the person is inviolable. It can't be broken.
NEUMAN: He goes further to say that there is value in celibacy.
HART: It's a difficult thing. It's some that - a point - I think it's the commission made - that not everyone can live up to.
NEUMAN: And when asked if he thought the report was damaging to the church, he said no.
HART: If you were to ask me - what is the position of the church now? - I would say that we are diminished because our people are sad at what has happened. Many are angry at the betrayal of the trust that should've been able to be given to leaders and to priests and so on.
NEUMAN: Among the commission's other recommendations is the establishment of a National Office of Child Safety and making it a crime for anyone failing to protect a child from abuse within an institution. Scott Neuman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS & NILS FRAHM'S "A1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.